(Billy Shortall’s and Ciarin O’Neill’s article appeared in The Iris Times, 1/26/2022; Photo: Delegates to the World Congress of the Irish Race led by Katherine Hughes, Mary MacSwiney, Éamon de Valera, Countess Markievicz, Thomas Hughes Kelly and Sean T O’Kelly. Photograph: Image Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)
A showcase of Irish art and design brought a fleeting moment of unity before the Civil War
In late January 1922 the cream of Irish politics, literature, music, theatre, art and design converged in Paris. James Joyce published his modernist masterpiece Ulysses. Renowned designer Eileen Gray opened her shop Jean Désert, and an event known as the World Congress of the Irish Race took place in the city. The week-long congress brought Irish delegates and an international audience together to discuss Irish affairs and establish a central diaspora organisation to co-ordinate worldwide support for the emerging State.
Associated with the congress the Irish government presented the grand narrative of Irish cultural history, with lectures on aspects of Irish life and culture, performances of plays by playwrights John M Synge and Lady Gregory, and concerts of Irish music. The centrepiece of this cultural display was a seminal exhibition of Irish art.
The Irish exhibition aimed to show the world the best of modern Irish art in a global context. It was an early deployment of soft power and cultural diplomacy
The French authorities estimated 250 people attended the congress. Approximately 100 delegates with voting rights travelled from all over the world to the political think-in and tactical display of Irish culture. Éamon de Valera described it as a chance to display Ireland’s “magnificent culture, the grand things the nation could give to the world”.
The centrepiece of this show was an art exhibition, mounted in a fashionable Parisian art gallery, Galerie Barbazanges, located just around the corner from Jean Désert. Barbazanges specialised in modern art, showing Picasso and Modigliani. By choosing this space the Irish exhibition aimed to show the world the best of modern Irish art in a global context. It was an early deployment of soft power and cultural diplomacy. Art was to be used as a key element of branding a postcolonial Ireland.
This Friday, January 28th, Trinity College Dublin will launch a 3D virtual recreation of this seminal exhibition developed by historians from the Department of History and Department of History of Art and Architecture in partnership with Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute. Seeing Ireland is an ambitious digital humanities project which forms part of the Decade of Centenaries programme for 2022 and has been supported by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.
Visitors to the website will be able to enjoy an immersive experience of attending the exhibition and see Ireland as it wished to be seen by the world in 1922 in a fleeting moment of unity, between the Treaty split and subsequent Civil War that dominated the narrative of that year in Irish history. Irish art and culture was something both sides could embrace.
At the time of the congress no other country had officially recognised the State. The authorities sought to present a self-defined identity and to elicit international support as it sought to take its place in the world. The Irish minister for fine arts George Noble Plunkett, in correspondence with both congress organiser Katherine Hughes and de Valera, noted the “propaganda value” of the exhibition. George Gavan Duffy, then minister for foreign affairs, wrote that the congress was “mainly of a cultural and artistic character” and he thought that it was wise to send a delegation representing Ireland that would endeavour to “avoid party politics”. He invited de Valera and Eoin MacNeill to each lead an official delegation of five representing the country.
Other delegates included Countess Markievicz, Mary McSwiney, Harry Boland, Sean T O’Kelly and Douglas Hyde, who delivered a lecture to attendees on the Irish language. William Butler Yeats lectured on Irish literature and his brother Jack, in his one and only public lecture, spoke on modern Irish art. Speakers included MacNeill on Irish history, Arthur Darley on music and Evelyn Gleeson on Irish design. Other presentations were on economics, religion, sport and agriculture. These topics were chosen to represent the pre-Civil War pillars on which the new administration planned to build the State.